Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Don Mellor On Post-Thaw Ice Climbing Conditions

Don first pitchYesterday I complained about the deterioration of backcountry-skiing conditions caused by last week’s rain and thaw. But what has happened to ice-climbing conditions?

I am a novice ice climber. In my mind, I figured a little rain and a little melting followed by subfreezing temperatures would improve conditions. More water means more ice, right?

Not necessarily, according to Don Mellor, author of Blue Lines: An Adirondack Ice Climber’s Guide.

Mellor has been climbing and studying ice for more than thirty-five years and has found that it is frustratingly unpredictable. Just because one route has good ice doesn’t mean another route will.

That said, Mellor thinks certain routes—particularly those in gullies, which hold a lot of ice—may have been helped by last week’s thaw. “Gullies have enough substance to weather a lot of abuse. I climbed Chouinard’s [above Chapel Pond] with my daughter on Saturday and found it fine. As I would have predicted,” Mellor told me yesterday.

Over the course of winter, a route can get beat up by climbers stabbing holes in the ice with their crampons and ice tools. After a while, a popular route becomes a “ladder,” allowing climbers to stick their boots and tools in holes created by their predecessors, which takes away some of the challenge. A rain or thaw tends to smooth out and restore the ice.

Chouinard’s Gully, Multiplication Gully, Pitchoff Right, and routes at the Beer Walls are among the climbs that may have been improved by the thaw, Mellor said.

But thin-ice routes probably only got thinner. These would include steep, difficult climbs such as Power Play near Chapel Pond and many routes on Poke-O Moonshine Mountain.

“If they’re only four inches thick and you lose a little bit, it hurts you,” he said.2nd pitch

Mellor said the lengthening of the day isn’t helping matters. “This time of year the big factor is sun angle—huge,” he said. “It sucks mass out of the ice, not just making it smaller. It lightens ice, takes away its denseness.”

For the hard-core ice climber, the season can last from Thanksgiving to April 1, but many people hang up their crampons in March—and Mellor is often among them.

“By now, I am sick of it,” he said of ice climbing. “Most routes are worse. No big challenges loom (they’re gone), and the higher sun makes me want to rock climb.”

In January, I climbed my first ice route, with Mellor on lead: the aforementioned Chouinard’s Gully, one of the most popular routes in the Adirondacks. Nancie Battaglia took the two photos above. The first shows Don starting up the first pitch. The second shows him on the second pitch, with me belaying. You can enlarge either photo by clicking on it.


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Phil Brown is the former Editor of Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues, the same topics he writes about here at Adirondack Almanack. Phil is also an energetic outdoorsman whose job and personal interests often find him hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, trail running, and backcountry skiing. He is the author of Adirondack Paddling: 60 Great Flatwater Adventures, which he co-published with the Adirondack Mountain Club, and the editor of Bob Marshall in the Adirondacks, an anthology of Marshall’s writings.Visit Lost Pond Press for more information.

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